In February 1997, less than three years since Phil Daniels guested on a jaunty ode to the English capital, Blur reinvented themselves as a frenzied, fraught guitar outfit that ripped up any expectations the presses and fans held for the band, creating a form of music that was based on hooks, riffs and instrumental passages, earmarking Graham Coxon as the creative force of the band. It was a daring change of direction, as the group abandoned some of the whimsical properties of their past material to create something more muscular and direct. The band were confident in their abilities, as was evident from their decision to name their fifth album Blur. The music may have changed, but the band – and the fundamental rules they based their work on – remained largely intact.
Damon Albarn had led the way during the band’s more pop-oriented era but recognised the need to write compositions that were denser, more brooding and infinitely more lick-focused than the jangly anthems they had recorded in 1994. And unlike Oasis, Blur recognised that the landscape was changing, especially as the 1990s were winding down to a halt. The best way forward wasn’t evolution, but a complete artistic overhaul, giving them a strong foothold in America with the turbo-charged freneticism of ‘Song 2’.
“I remember having a really bad sweaty hangover that day,” bassist Alex James recalled. ” And it was very sunny. We were at Mayfair Studios, Primrose Hill, and I’d been trying to think of a title for a TV show a friend was doing about rock wives. Then it came to me: ‘Hits and Mrs!’ So I thought that was my work for the day over. It sums up ‘Song 2’ really. We didn’t think about it at all. Graham set up two kits, Dave and Graham started playing drums at the same time, this real ‘aggro’ beat. Then the chorus is two distorted basses and Damon’s guide vocal. It was kind of a throwback. We’d always done brainless rocking out, though maybe it’s not what we’re known for.”
It was the first time the band had agreed to come across glibly, having laced themselves under film and literature references during the Britpop days, but the band were growing more comfortable in their skin, keenly understanding a chorus inflected with ‘woo hoo’ was as pertinent to their trajectory as a musical elegy about Anglo-Franco relations. ‘On Your Own’ furthered the connection to American music, embellishing the backdrop with a series of pounding hip-hop beats, melding their imprints on a genre that was yet to make a seismic impact on their native England.
This was intelligent music, presenting the group as troubadours as a higher cause, pointing to the future, much as Be Here Now, ironically, looked to the past. But what should have been the beginning of an era was actually a portrait of a group in recess, as the follow-up, 13, bore little of the guitar flavours of their 1997 effort. It sat singularly and uniquely in their canon of work, showing that the band were willing to throw themselves into the process of creative thought for a moment, even if it didn’t lead to a career.
But the band were never keen to embrace the rulings of a movement, which is why they were eager to confine the Britpop albums to the past, and it also suggests why the group were so happy to embrace ideas from other members within their orbit. Coxon had finally found the courage to present his lyrical voice to the band, singing ‘You’re So Great’ virtually alone. Coxon tackled the high harmonies on ‘M.O.R’, and Dave Rowntree played ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ with slow detachment, creating a backbeat that glid off the vocals in front of him.
James was growing more confident as a bassist, as ‘Beetlebum’ presents the beginnings of the ‘Vindaloo’ single he would write with Keith Allen. Albarn too was growing as a songwriter, displaying his emotional experiences with naked expression- not forgetting Coxon, who was imbuing the album with a series of burning licks, each one more sizzling than the last. Rowntree too was showing more complexities as a drummer, but ever the silent one, he did it in a way that was subtle yet shimmering. Indeed, any one of the members could have been a star in their own right, and it’s telling that every member of Blur went on to become a celebrity (however minor) in the new millennium.
They sparkled with effervescence and energy that was absent from Oasis, who was always a vehicle for Noel Gallagher‘s songcraft, and they showed that a band depended on the input from all to be an effective property. But the Blur album shows that the band were greater than the sum of their parts, and proved that together under one banner, there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish.